Parke, Mother of Two, CA
Parke is a mom of two very different kids and a long time volunteer in local schools. She especially loves getting to know kids over the course of a school year, reading one-on-one with them, and watching them grow in their confidence. She lives with her husband and children in California. Parke is a Catalyst for RE-ENVISIONED and was interviewed by her friend and Mentor Catalyst, Erin.
First, I know you’re a mom, if you could just think about your two kids and tell me a little bit about them.
Well, my kids are night and day – they’re very different. One is more quiet and reserved and he does things when he’s motivated, but he doesn’t have any desire to do – how do I describe it – he doesn’t want to do the most he can do just to do it. He doesn’t need perfection in his academic world to validate himself. My younger daughter is very high stress and anxiety and wanting to do everything ahead of time and more than necessary and is very hard on herself.
They’ve achieved different levels of academic success, but I think it’s come at a greater cost to my daughter who wants to do everything perfectly every time – she’ll have 101% in the class and still do extra credit. On the other hand she does have a love of learning, she’s always been that way. She’s always loved to read or be read to – non-fiction books. I remember she went through a phase where it was all about the rainforest and we’d read and she’d seem to just absorb the facts – she has this natural curiosity. And now she loves to read on her own. She’ll choose novels that take place in other times and cultures – so she has that drive to learn.
My son is much more practical and hands-on. He’s very good and patient with things he wants to know about – like he’s into his car and he wants to know everything about it – but his grade in math he’ll calculate the lowest he can get to get at least a B. He doesn’t need that A.
So in some ways I think they could learn from each other – Todd could learn from Sarah’s drive, and get stuff done because you do need to perform in whatever system you’re in. But she could also use some of his just relax and I’m going to do what’s interesting to me and not care how it’s perceived so much. They’re very different in that way. I think Todd has a lot of self confidence that Sarah doesn’t have. She’s always worried, “am I doing enough? Do my teachers like me?” And he’s like, “I want to be a police officer, I’m not ready to go to college so I’m not going to go.” And he’s totally comfortable with that decision. He’s comfortable going against the high achieving high performance culture we live in and she’s more conforming to it. So you look at them and they have very different ways of measuring their happiness or success.
And they’re both in high school?
Todd just graduated and Sarah will be a sophomore. She’s worried that next year it’s going to be too hard. I’m like, “you’ve worried about that every year and has it ever been too hard?” She’s like, “no”. But they both get through it in their own ways.
So when you think about them, all grown up, in their 30s, what do you want for them? What would be a good life?
I think what I would most want for them is the ability to make their own choices of what they want to do and not be relegated to something they’re not happy with or not content with because that’s all they can do. I want them to have the education or the experiences to enable them to pursue a career that makes them happy. And hopefully live independently and pay their own bills and all that too.
Right now they worry because neither is interested in typical things. Here’s an example: My daughter’s freshman friends all have to make choices about what classes they’ll take next year. There’s this AP computer science class – which is kind of rare because there aren’t many AP classes that sophomores can take – so she has all these friends who have zero interest in computer science and coding. They don’t want it as a career or a hobby or anything and they’re going to take it because it’s the only AP you can take. She’s not going to take it and in fact isn’t going to take any APs and so now is all worried – “that’s where all the jobs are, what if I don’t take coding?”. I always tell them they’ll be much happier doing something you like, even if you make less money, than if you take the job that makes the most money but you hate it. But where we live kind of influences kids doing things that they’re not necessarily interested in but they think there’s value in status – like coding has status because it’s the Valley.
Do you think a good life is largely determined by what you do for work?
No, I think it’s determined by relationships and I think relationships are the most important part of life. Work is obviously the one thing you spend most of your hours doing so I hope it’s something that gives you satisfaction and contentment. It doesn’t have to make you the happiest when you’re there but it’s going to enable you to support yourself and do whatever else you want to do also. I think life is about finding relationships and the work that can support your life.
So I guess when you ask me what I see for them, the whole life package would be that they have relationships that are healthy and they’ve chosen and they want. And that they can support themselves where they live.
Thinking about that, and especially for two very different kids. What do you think the role of schooling should be to get there? Not what it is but what would you ideally have schools do?
Well I think it would be – I don’t know – there are so many kinds of kids. And I think about the kids I tutor in East Palo Alto who might not have the access to role models or high quality education – school may not be the foundation of what you’re able to do later in life. So college is not for everybody, but going through our schooling system should prepare you for something. I feel like that’s something we’re lacking right now. It seems like either you’re excelling and you’re getting into college or there’s nothing else really for you to do. I think it’s an unhealthy balance we’ve come to in our society. Especially locally – people can’t afford to live here and are moving away. I think it’s unhealthy for a community to have the top earners limited to certain jobs because there’s a breadth of jobs and we’re not preparing people for a variety, and not honoring the variety with a living income.
Schooling in America the K-12 schooling model should really have real, sustainable options at the end of the 12th grade.
It should mean something to finish high school. And if college is not in your path, it should mean you’re equipped to do something else by which you can support yourself. And I feel it’s become either a way to churn out these really top kids who can go to these top colleges. Or to figure out how to make sure everyone else won’t be so much trouble. It would be great if there were different paths for different kids and they weren’t stereotyped or judged – just, this is what’s good for you and it’s valued.
And if in high school you found something you were good at you could develop a competency in it by the end. Instead of , “you’re going to take the lowest classes and limp along and then “yay, you graduated” but what does that really mean?
I don’t know what that would look like – is it different standards or different ways for kids to find what they’re good at and motivated to do and then do more of that and less of the other stuff. I see especially with my son, if you’re not motivated it doesn’t mean you don’t need history – but the things you’re motivated in you’re just going to succeed so much more in. So let kids make their own path a bit, and create their own courses of study that allow them to try based on what they’re interested in would be an interesting model to pursue.
Do you think schools do that, or did that, for your kids?
For my kids I think school has been sort of standard – four years of classes that kids take. It did not allow them to pick something that they want or are most interested in and craft choices around that. There are limits based on the size of the school, based on all the classes you have to take. If you’re a kid who’s looking at graduation they have an A-G requirement thing, so your schedule is very full. The school offers a ton of options that seem really interesting but you can’t take them all because you’re taking these courses you have to take. There are tons of choices – astronomy, environmental science – but everyone does bio, chem, physics. Why is it that way? Why can’t you choose the sciences you want to do? The only choices are the regular, the honors or the AP – not what you’re studying. The kids I know who have gone through school and taken the interesting elective to them had to take them online or during the zero period. It can be done but you have to be such a driven kid and have extra time and probably not do any sports if you really want to make the most of what’s out there. Otherwise you’re stuck with this schedule of classes you have to take.
For instance, my daughter was interested in choir and they wouldn’t let freshmen take it because it was too full. It would have been great if they could have hired another teacher to serve all the freshmen who wanted to take it. They weren’t able to capture an interest because of outside forces like the pressures of the number of kids and teachers. Those things artificially create a schedule that you’re going to take and it’s not based on the kids’ interest. There’s total value in having some core set of classes you take – I don’t think – I think it’s fine for a kid to suffer through a bad teacher or make their way through a system. I don’t think you cater to every whim a kid may have, because part of life is working around things that aren’t perfect. You may have a boss you don’t like and you still have to do well. It’s okay for them to have a little of, “oh man I have to do this” – and high school is a good place to learn that lesson. But when four years of your life is structured by classes you have to take it can be a little depressing by the end. So maybe there’s a way to get down to what we really value as society and what you should know and from there have it be more student driven beyond that.
When you said the biggest part of happiness is relationships, do you think schools have any role in that?
Do you mean teaching them how to be in relationships?
I don’t mean any particular way – I just noticed that when you talked about what a good life is, you talked about being able to support yourself and a career that’s fulfilling and that relationships are a big part of that.
School is definitely where a kid spends most of their time, right. So most of their relationships are going to come from there. Beyond the classroom there are the clubs and the after-school programs and the sports you do – my son was in the band for four years. It’s definitely the breeding ground for many of the relationships in your life. It’s going to be the place you find the people you’ll spend most of your time with the first two decades of your life. I don’t know what to say about how I think schools should… I mean it’s great when schools can find different ways for kids to relate to each other and opportunities to pursue things outside of the classroom.
I never really thought about schools having a role in teaching didactically relationship things, but it’s a place where you’re going to experience a lot of different kinds of relationships. Some are going to be stressful and made of conflict and it’s going to be the place you’re going to resolve that. It’s a microcosm of the greater world you’re going to graduate into. Hopefully you’ve had experience with different kinds of relationships throughout your schooling so you know how to handle yourself when different relationships come up.
My daughter does team sports, which I think is great – then you have people from other classes. And my son, like I said, did band for four years – so he has this group of kids you’re with the whole time. So you can learn from the older ones and help guide the younger ones. Fortunately I haven’t had to help them navigate a lot of bad relationships or consequences like that in schooling. But I know that schools have made a lot of strides toward restorative justice. They work to manage conflict and manage how kids relate to one another and not be so punitive and prepare kids for life.
You have kids coming from all different walks of life. For some kids it might be the first time they’ve gone to class with someone whose parents have gone to jail or who don’t have stable housing or all these different kinds of things they haven’t experienced. It’s sort of eye opening and there’s relationships there too. Learning how to accept other people and find the commonalities that we have. So in a way I think MA is a good example for that because it brings people together from everywhere and puts them in classes and says, okay, you’re in history together now – get along and do a project together.
You were saying that K-12 should basically provide kids with real sustainable options at the end of grade 12 – so if college isn’t in your path you’re equipped to do something else – are schools doing that for all kids? If not, why not?
I think they’re not, and I’m sure there are a million reasons. I guess I can speak to some I know of myself or through friends. Perhaps a kid who is struggling academically and is at risk of dropping out, there’s mentorship programs. I have some friends who do that and meet weekly. While it’s amazing to have someone come weekly and take an interest in you – it doesn’t always solve the problem. There’s so many pressures on kids from outside – maybe they need to take an extra job to help support their family or their family is always moving or something dramatic is happening and so that’s what they’re thinking about while in school. So school is not doing that. I have a friend who was mentoring for a few years and saw her kid drop out.
My observation is no – there is not a viable path to independence and choice for kids at the end of school. And I don’t know if it’s the school’s fault or what they can do to change it – but I know the kids are dealing with so many outside pressures that they can’t make the most of their school years because of practical things and what’s expected for them at home.
So, on these different levels – do you think people agree with you?
I guess people in my circle probably do – life is about having freedom and choice and good relationships. I think that’s pretty common in my circles. And a lot of the people I’m personally know are involved in education in some way – we volunteer and see the struggles that need attention. So I would so yes, people do agree that there are a whole bunch of people the system is failing – they’re spending the bulk of their hours there and not moving forward or not having the support at home – not at any fault of the home that’s there, just as a result of the pressures that are there. So schools are failing in a way and I don’t know how much can be done. I see a lot of programs and a lot of money addressing different pieces of it – breakfast or lunch or people like me who come in to read – but all these pieces aren’t gelling to make the outcome.
I guess what I see is a lot of little things being addressed but the whole child outcome isn’t really changing. That’s a common view with people I talk to. It’s highlighted in this area: there’s a huge percentage of kids who just don’t make it through, or they make it through and then what? What is the path? If there’s no path that helps them to that life of choice and independence and healthy relationships, then what has been the point of the 18 years? So, it’s something I think about a lot and I don’t really have solutions for.
I’ve been on the PTA, and it does take on its shoulders the small things like bus tokens and snacks and fill these small needs kids do have, but it’s such a small problem. Fitting into our economy at the end is so much bigger than all of those. And it’s a government system so it does have a role in fixing all of this. But like any big system you spend so much time on the daily and immediate physical needs but rarely have the luxury to step back and look at what’s the best thing for this system to change. I know a lot of people think about it a lot, but I hope that someday this crystallizes and becomes a way of making big changes possible so that so many kids aren’t left behind.
I don’t even think making it that 100% of kids go to college is the option. It doesn’t have to be the option for everybody. There should be lots of rewarding careers with diverging careers.
My next question is, stepping into your life – what’s an educational experience that’s been empowering for you – in school or out of school?
This was a long time ago, and I don’t know if it had lasting impact, but something I think of when I see my kids, is that I went to school in Palo Alto. It was small then – 25 people per grade level. I remember in 6th grade we were reading Hamlet – probably a junior version – my best friend and I wanted to do it as a stage show. We went to the teacher and asked the teacher, we want to direct this and make a show, can we do it? She said sure, ask the principal. So we got a bunch of parents to sign up and help us use the stage after school. We directed it and casted it and parents came to rehearsals and brought snacks and then we performed it for the whole class.
It was something we just wanted to do and we went to the teacher and administrator and every adult that was necessary and they were all on board and helped make it happen. I look at my own kids’ experiences, and their schools are much bigger, and we’re in a great district, but I don’t see there’s that kind of freedom for kids to come up with something like that and do it. Maybe it worked because the school was smaller and there weren’t a hundred groups trying to rent out the space after school. But it’s something I’ll always remember is, as an eleven year old saying hey I want to do this and having all the adults support it to happen.
I’d love to see more of that – a kid coming up with an idea and being supported to make it happen.
But the schools themselves are under pressure because as soon as the bell rings at three, they have 10 clubs coming in. The kids have all their clubs and practices. The administrators are under a lot of pressure and don’t have time o think about the little passion project of an eleven- year-old. I don’t see that level of relaxed-ness and ability to let kids do something totally different that they just want to do. Maybe it’s happening and I don’t know. But it seems there’s a strict schedule of things that happen between 3-9 and there isn’t the room for kids to take initiative and be supported by the adults to do make happen what they would like to see happen.